By Poornima Mandpe:
The other day, I was chatting with one of my friends, younger in age than I am and someone who comes from a decidedly conservative background, or so I thought. Her words were full of the common sense and rationality the huge majority of us Indians seem to be averse to. We feel proud of the traditions and propriety and never give a second thought to the absurd injustices inflicted through the generations on certain sections of society, women (across castes and classes) chief among them.
The topic was the controversy on the crossing of the sacred inner threshold of Shani Shingnapur Temple, guarded jealously by the ‘protectors’ of religion, ‘upper caste and male’. “Women prepare the Prasad, take care of the devotees and do so much for the maintenance of the temple. Doesn’t that, then, pollute the sanctity of the temple,” she said.
Indeed, it is ironical that in a country where the majority of the people follow a religion filled with Goddesses for every aspect of life, for food, for knowledge, for wealth and power, women are so poorly represented in religion and religious affairs. While women, pious and following the tenets of religion are deemed as ‘virtuous’ in a typically traditional society, their role in the physical and spiritual realm of religious activities is curtailed, especially when it comes to occupying positions of power.
A typical Indian household would have a girl or a woman debarred from participating in puja or other such rituals during her menstrual cycle. Many would consume pills at the cost of their health to push their periods forward. (The same society would shun a woman if her periods do not stop, i.e., for not having the ability to conceive.)
Women occupying the ranks of priests, religious heads are few and far between, and the exceptions only prove the rule. Yes, there are some ‘Godwomen’. Some politicians are worshipped as Goddesses. However, it is disheartening to observe them practise and propagate the same ideals of patriarchy and hold on to the belief that the sufferings of women are just and are a pathway to spiritual liberation.
Not allowing women to worship and preach religion as freely as men is one of the many indignities heaped upon them by the patriarchal society. Not only does it undermine their dignity as human beings but it also underlines and reinforces their unequal status when they are not allowed control of their own spirituality. Because a woman is not allowed to observe certain rituals, read religious texts, or practise religion the way she wishes to, it becomes easier for those in power to interpret religion for their own benefit and exploit her ignorance to bind her with further social constraints.
The movement for greater liberties for women in religion is not new. Rationalist thinker Narendra Dabholkar had spearheaded the agitations to allow women onto the ‘prohibited platform’ in the temples, unfortunately, with little success. The issue has now been picked up by the Bhumata Ranragini Brigade, a Pune based organisation of feisty women, hell bent on breaking free from the age-old chains of tradition that refuse to grant women an equal status in matters pertaining to religion and culture.
Centuries before this, the Bhakti movement had rejected the rigid Bhramanical order which insisted on the observance of elaborate and costly rituals as the only pathway to achieve salvation. It instead laid an emphasis on devotion and a more personal relationship with God. Not only would many a male bhakta use the female gender to call upon ‘her’ beloved, women, across different castes and communities, were at the forefront in asserting their right to worship and expressing their faith through passionate poetry, grounded in the everyday struggles of a woman wanting to break free from patriarchy. Many were ostracised for doing so.
Gradually, the movement weakened, and the old hierarchy-based way of practising religion sustained itself. The women’s movement that emerged during the Independence movement focused on education, freedom from marital burdens and widowhood. Women’s right to freedom in religious matters, however, appears to have remained unaddressed.
The problem arises because we in India tend to treat faith in God or a higher being as a community affair, and not as a matter of personal opinion. It is not upon the individual to follow his/her faith (or lack of faith for that matter) on the basis of his/her own principles and personality. It is the society which thrusts upon us a set of rules, regulations, codes and hierarchies and adhering to these rules determines your identity in society.
The phenomenon is not restricted to India’s majority religion alone. The High Court just recently heard an appeal made on behalf of the Muslim women’s protest against their debarment from the inner sanctum of Mumbai’s iconic Haji Ali. The argument put forward by the petitioners was grounded in both the law and faith. Stating that gender justice is inherent in the Quran, the women also made demands on the basis of the Constitution, which confers upon its citizens fundamental rights to equality, freedom from discrimination and equal access to public places irrespective of caste, class, community or gender.
Interestingly, the trustees of the Haji Ali Dargah also invoked religion and the Constitution to counter the argument. On one hand, they claimed that “entry of women in close proximity of grave of a male saint is a grievous sin in Islam.” On the other hand, they also interpreted Article 26 of the Constitution (under which citizens are free to preach, practise and propagate any religion of their choice) as the right of the trustees to manage their own religious affairs!
The support of women is also sought to support such arguments. The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti for example, claims how local women, residents of Trimbakeshwar, also agree to the restrictions, without any objections, as being ‘divinely’ ordained by the religious texts. Even female VIPs, like the ex-President, Chief Ministers of States and female M.P.s/M.L.A.s respect the tradition and refrain from entering, they say.
The governments, right-wing or otherwise, have always chosen to either remain silent or react passively at best, only requesting the Temple trustees to reconsider their stand.
The Bombay High Court on 1st April 2016, ruled that offering prayers at a temple is the fundamental right of a woman and it is the government’s fundamental duty to protect their rights. In spite of the clear order, however, locals stopped the women activists led by Trupti Desai from entering and offering prayers in the inner sanctum of Shani Shingnapur Temple!
It’s really a long struggle to achieve the desired end. Yet, a small step like making the choice to worship during your periods or questioning what is really written in your Gita, Quran and Bible, and reading it for yourself could also help!
Let’s take that step forward!